SpaceX’s First Human Spaceflight Is Tomorrow!

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The Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on the launchpad today. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Astronauts have not blasted off to space from American soil in nearly nine years. But tomorrow, that finally changes. SpaceX will launch its first ever crewed mission, Crew Dragon Demo-2, tomorrow at 4:30 pm Eastern Time. The rocket will ferry NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Benkhen to their scheduled rotation on the International Space Station.

This is a big deal. It’s especially a big deal if you work in a space-related field, like I do, but it should be a big deal to everyone. In 2011, this could have been the news story of the week. Maybe even of the month if it was a slow month.

I don’t even remember the last time we had a slow month in the news media. I think it was in 2015.

The United States has not had the capability to launch our own astronauts into space since the retirement of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2011. Ever since, every astronaut to go into space has had to hitch a ride with the Russians.* Elon Musk, although he’s not the only person in the game anymore (Boeing is planning to do it next year), was arguably single-handedly pushing us in this direction for years, and that work is finally paying off.

The mission will go on tomorrow, weather permitting. You’ll be able to see it live on NASA TV, SpaceX’s live stream, and on the Discovery and Science Channels. So if you’re stuck at home for quarantine, or if you otherwise have some time to set aside, be sure to check out this historic event.**

*Aside from a few Virgin Galactic tourists on sub-orbit flights, and those only by FAA standards, not international standards.

**Full disclosure: I am a postdoc at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. However, this post represents solely my own opinions and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASA or the United States Government.

Posted in Current events, Space exploration | Tagged , , ,

#4 – The Roots of Sci-Fi in Adventure

#9 – The Dystopia Classic A Reader's History of Science Fiction

Dystopian fiction has become a popular subgenre of sci-fi in its own right, but the earliest dystopian novels shared some unique elements in common, inverting the standard tropes of the hero's journey. In this episode, we explore what has made these stories so enduring. Book recommendation: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. My essay on the inverted hero's journey. Link to the Heroine's journey. Link to O'Brien's speech.
  1. #9 – The Dystopia Classic
  2. #8 – The Dawn of Cinema
  3. #7 – H. P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror
  4. #6 – Pulp Fiction
  5. #5 – H. G. Wells and the Dawn of Science Fiction

Jules Verne was perhaps the first author to systematically incorporate the latest science into his work, becoming one of the biggest minds behind the idea of science fiction. Yet his focus wasn’t so much on sci-fi as it was on adventure fiction. In this episode I explore how he contributed to the development of the genre.

Book recommendation: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas by Jules Verne.

Check out this episode!

Posted in Science Fiction

Writing Advice: Scrivener

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Disclaimer: not a sponsored post. I just really like Scrivener.

It’s been a long time since I’ve given any proper writing advice on this blog, but I had one thing I wanted to tell you after seeing recent developments in the community.

I’ve been using Scrivener for my writing since…well, since it was still in beta for the Windows version. Novels, essays, podcast scripts, and even these blog posts: all in Scrivener. If you don’t know about it, Scrivener is a writing program designed specifically for writers, and if you’re a serious writer, I highly recommend it. It’s not free, but it’s definitely worth the price.

The thing is, over the past…oh, about a year or so, I’ve seen a number of YouTube creators talking about a website called World Anvil. Long story short, World Anvil lets you create your own wiki for your fictional worlds. These YouTubers are more into worldbuilding than they are writing, but some of them are writers, too. Recently, I’ve also seen a similar website called Campfire mentioned.

(Edit: on further review, I’ve learned that Campfire is a one-time purchase, not a subscription service. However, while Campfire may be comparable to Scrivener, I think the rest of my conclusions still stand.)

And here’s my problem: I’ve looked into World Anvil multiple times, and…I just don’t get it.

I’m sure World Anvil is a fine website, and it might be of more use for certain kinds of projects, but I honestly don’t see the point. It seems like it would be more work to curate wiki articles instead of your own notes, with a dramatically poorer organization system. (It’s hard to pull up a comprehensive, organized list of articles on a wiki.) It just doesn’t seem like it would be useful to me when I can do almost everything it does in Scrivener.

Yet, I see so many writers and worldbuilders whose opinions I respect recommending World Anvil that I wondered if I was missing something. So, I started poking around, and it turns out, it’s a lot simpler than I thought. A quick Reddit search told me all I needed: a lot of people use Scrivener as an alternative to online services like World Anvil. I’m not missing anything. I just already have exactly what I need.

I think I’ve been using Scrivener for so long that I’ve forgotten how revolutionary it was when I first got it. Scrivener is offline. It’s a one-time $50 purchase instead of a subscription service, so it’s better value than those websites if you use it for more than a year. It lets you organize all your work (including external files and images) in a nice, intuitive folder system. You don’t have to write your whole novel in one long document, and you don’t have to write your notes separately. Everything goes on separate pages of a single project, where you can call up a specific chapter easily and even rearrange them if you want. Plus, it will compile those pages into a standard manuscript format for you. It’s like night and day compared with a normal word processor like Microsoft Word.

(As for being offline, I know people swear by the Cloud these days, but I much more trust computers that I own outright, despite needing to back them up manually. And with my career/lifestyle, I’m rarely far from my computer when I want to work on my writing. Also, you don’t have to worry about your internet connection with an offline program.)

So, basically, my advice to serious writers is to get Scrivener if you can. Maybe for a group project or something that’s all worldbuilding like an RPG campaign, a website like World Anvil would be better (indeed, that seems to be World Anvil’s target audience), but if you plan to use your worldbuilding for writing stories, stick with Scrivener.

Posted in reviews, Writing | Tagged , , ,

#3 – The Roots of Sci-Fi in Horror

#9 – The Dystopia Classic A Reader's History of Science Fiction

Dystopian fiction has become a popular subgenre of sci-fi in its own right, but the earliest dystopian novels shared some unique elements in common, inverting the standard tropes of the hero's journey. In this episode, we explore what has made these stories so enduring. Book recommendation: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. My essay on the inverted hero's journey. Link to the Heroine's journey. Link to O'Brien's speech.
  1. #9 – The Dystopia Classic
  2. #8 – The Dawn of Cinema
  3. #7 – H. P. Lovecraft and Cosmic Horror
  4. #6 – Pulp Fiction
  5. #5 – H. G. Wells and the Dawn of Science Fiction

Note: WordPress seems to have a new option for an embedded podcast player, although it still has to be inserted manually. I may continue to tweak the post format once I have a better idea of how it works.

Check out this episode!

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Roots of Sci-Fi in Satire

Several books widely regarded as the first science fiction novels date back as far as the sixteenth century, but most of these weren’t dramatic stories at all, but were satirical instead. In this episode, I explore how satire contributed to the genre of science fiction.

Book recommendation: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Check out this episode on Libsyn!

Edit: LibSyn’s player doesn’t work on WordPress basic, so I will be manually editing the podcast posts with the direct-linked MP3. If you don’t see the player on a future episode, it should be up by the next day, or you can click the LibSyn link.

Posted in Uncategorized

What Is Science Fiction

In this first episode, I explain how I developed the idea of this podcast, what I mean by science fiction, and how this podcast will proceed. A preview for the rest of the series.

The cover art is the heart of the Tarantula Nebula as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Check out this episode!

Posted in Uncategorized

I’m Starting a Podcast!

A long time ago–around the time I started this blog, actually–I decided I was going toread all the classic novels of science fiction. It was a long list, so it’s taken me eight years to get through it, but I’m nearly at the end of the list now. And as I finished the the list, I though I’d start writing some blog posts about it, but I soon realized this was too big a topic for a simple series of posts. It would work better as a podcast.

If you’re wondering why I’ve been radio silent for the past few weeks, one of the reasons is that I’ve been getting this ready. A Reader’s History of Science Fiction is a bi-weekly podcast where I explore…well, it’s right there in the title. I think there are a lot of interesting stories to be told about how the genre developed and how these classic works influenced its development.

The first episode should be up here and at the major podcast distributors tomorrow morning. You’ll see a new episode every other Monday. They’re only fifteen minutes long, so you can consume it in bite-sized chunks, and each episode (after the first) will include a book recommendation so you can explore the history of sci-fi yourself as we go.

So, if you’re interested in science fiction (and if you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing there’s a good chance you are), I hope you’ll check it out.

Posted in Announcements, Science Fiction | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Cosmos Season 3 Starts Tomorrow!

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Correction: as of March 10, Cosmos is NOT available on Disney Plus. As far as I can tell, you can currently get it only on cable services like Hulu Live TV or YouTube TV. (Ugh. If I wanted to pay that much, I would have stuck with cable.) It’s expected to be on Disney Plus after it finishes airing on National Geographic (hopefully).

I can’t believe it took me until almost the premier to find out about this, but it’s finally here! The third season of Cosmos airs tomorrow night! Featuring the return of Neil deGrasse Tyson and 13 all-new episodes, Cosmos: Possible Worlds is quite likely to be the biggest science show of the year.

It’s kind of odd to call this “Season 3” given that “Season 1” was 40 years ago, and “Season 2” was six years ago, but Cosmos is not an ordinary television show. The original Cosmos, subtitled A Personal Voyage, was the iconic 13-part series about the universe and our place in it, which was hosted by the great Carl Sagan way back in 1980. It has been viewed by 500 million people in the intervening four decades and was the most-watched public television show of the entire 1980s.

Sadly, the fragmenting of television into cable channels and streaming services makes it pretty near impossible to get that kind of viewership today, but the quality of the show has not diminished. “Season 2” of Cosmos, A Spacetime Odyssey, was the remake in 2014, also hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I reviewed that season extensively at the time. See this post to start off, but in short, I thought it was very much a worthy successor to the original and still stood out among the much more crowded field of science shows we have today.

Also, note that A Spacetime Odyssey really was a remake, with eight of the 13 episodes being in many ways updated versions of seven of the episodes of the original. And these were stories that needed to be told because a lot had changed in 34 years, both in science and society. But I felt the new Cosmos was at its best when it branched out and told new stories, unencumbered by the long shadow of the original, so I’m excited to see what they do with a completely new season this year.

(Although based on the episode titles, two or three episodes of this new season may still call back to the original.)

The newest installment, Cosmos: Possible Worlds, will go into more depth with the new science of extrasolar planets, the exploration of the solar system, and the search for extraterrestrial life, while maintaining the dedication to scientific literacy and opposing antiscience policies that have been a staple of the show from the beginning—and it will include a tribute to Carl Sagan himself.

Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, remains on the writing and producer teams of the show, and Seth MacFarlane is also there as co-producer. MacFarlane (in addition to his many comedy credits) is an avid science enthusiast and was the driving force behind getting the remake made in the first place. With them at the helm and Dr. Tyson hosting, I’m confident that the new season will be up to the same standards as the previous one.

Where to Watch

Cosmos will air on the National Geographic Channel starting tomorrow (Monday, March 9) at 8 pm Eastern. If you want to watch it online… (Um…Googling the National Geographic Channel…owned by Fox…which was bought by Disney…) Well, they finally did it. They got me to subscribe to Disney Plus. You can stream it online there. And if you want to stick to broadcast, it will also be airing on Fox Network later this summer.

I will be reviewing this new series in chunks much like I did with the original, so stay tuned.

Posted in Current events, Science, TV Reviews | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Book Review: Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

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One of the top science fiction books of 2019, even reaching the summer reading list of former President Barack Obama, was Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang. This collection compiles nine recent short stories by the author of “Story of Your Life,” on which the movie Arrival was based.

I don’t read that many short stories, and I almost never read anthologies. I generally find full-length novels more interesting. But this book came up on my book club’s reading list, so I gave it a shot.

I admit I was underwhelmed by Arrival when it came out, although its worst excesses seem to have been added to the original novella. But I also wasn’t thrilled with the premise. The linguistics part was fun, but the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is long since debunked, and the idea of learning a new language hacking your brain to give you superpowers is just plain silly, and I think Robert Heinlein did it better in Stranger in a Strange Land.

All this means that my expectations weren’t high when I started Exhalation: Stories, but I was pleasantly surprised. These stories, on the whole, are cleverly told and entertaining, and they ask deep questions of the same kind presented in Arrival. I might have wanted to review some of the stories individually, but I feel confident in reviewing the collection as a single unit because of the clear themes running through it. What does it mean to be human, or even just alive? How do we face the concepts of free will and destiny in an incomprehensible universe? Chiang does a good job of making the reader think about these questions while letting them draw their own conclusions.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I do still want to comment on the individual stories because there are some very interesting and thought-provoking things in there. So, obviously, spoilers below.

Continue reading
Posted in Book reviews | Tagged , ,

Help Name the Mars 2020 Rover!

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If you remember the summer of 2012, you might recall the landing of the Curiosity rover on Mars. (As a hint, it was right at the end of the London Olympics.) It was a pretty big deal because this was one of the biggest and certainly the most complicated piece of equipment we’d ever landed on Mars, and because of the seemingly insane landing system where it was lowered on a cable from a rocket-powered crane. (I was at The Planetary Society’s Planetfest event for the landing, and I had a great time.)

Well, now, NASA is doing it again.

On July 17 of this year, the Mars 2020 rover will launch on its way to (obviously) Mars. This rover is another car-sized monster, which will also have to land with a sky crane. In fact, Mars 2020 is basically a copy of the Curiosity chassis with some new and better instruments installed. And they are pretty cool. This rover will have ground penetrating radar. It will have a laser spectrometer fancy enough to directly detect signs of life. (NASA rarely says they’re officially looking for life because they don’t want to raise their expectations too high.) It will test an oxygen-production experiment for future human missions. And it will have helicopter, despite the fact that the air on Mars is so thin that it’s equivalent to 30 km (100,000 feet) high on Earth. Oh, and it’ll also cache some rock samples for a future sample return mission.

But the one thing the rover doesn’t have yet is a name.

Curiosity wasn’t always Curiosity. It was originally the Mars Science Laboratory. It was named based on a public poll of names submitted by students around the country, and NASA is doing the same thing for Mars 2020. The name of the new rover will be selected based on the results* of a public poll of names submitted by students. You can read the finalists’ essays and vote in the poll at the Name the Rover Contest.

Voting is open through Monday, January 27. The finalists in the poll are:
Clarity
Courage
Endurance
Fortitude
Ingenuity
Perseverance
Promise
Tenacity
Vision

All of these are fair names, but my vote is for Ingenuity.** And my reason is that continuing the theme is too good to pass up. As I said, Curiosity and Mars 2020 are twins—the same design with different instruments. And not only would Ingenuity be the closest name to the scientific themes of the mission, but naming the pair of rovers Curiosity and Ingenuity would have a poetic symmetry to it.

So go out and vote, and maybe your favorite name will be chosen for the next Mars rover!

* It’s not 100% certain to follow the poll results because of the risk of vote-fixing.

** Full disclosure: I am a postdoc at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. However, this post represents solely my own opinion and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASA or the United States Government.

Posted in Space exploration | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments